A talented new chef reimagines the menu at D.C. area stalwart Vermilion

Vermilion’s new chef, Ben Pflaumer. | Credit: LeadingDC

Vermilion, a cherished new American staple in the Old Town Alexandria, returned to the area’s dining scene this July. The restaurant’s highly anticipated reopening after its 2020 pandemic closure features a triple threat: overhauled interiors, a revamped menu, and an illustrious new chef at the helm.

“It’s a great opportunity to be part of a restaurant that people loved so much,” says executive chef Ben Pflaumer. “There’s a really high expectation for re-opening Vermilion.”

Pflaumer has a star-studded resume. His previous stints include a number of revered Italian restaurants including D.C.’s Osteria Morini, MICHELIN-starred Masseria, and Philadelphia’s long-standing Vetri Cucina. He joins a long line of renowned chefs who’ve landed Vermilion on many “best-of” lists since it first opened in 2003.

And Pflaumer’s just getting started.

A new chef in Old Town

Chicken ballotine at Vermilion—the pre-fall menu will feature sunchokes instead of baby corn. | Credit: LeadingDC

With Pflaumer steering Vermilion’s kitchen, expect the restaurant’s menu to change with the seasons. The pre-fall menu, which debuted in mid-September, is an edible ode to cooler temps. For example, autumn sunchokes replace the midsummer baby corn in the chicken ballotine.

Divided into snacks, shareable small plates, and hearty mains, the dishes at Vermilion recall Pflaumer’s experience in fine-dining establishments in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. “Definitely expect a lot of Italian inspiration,” he says. “A lot of my background comes from cooking not just a ton of Italian food, but also a lot of French technique and sauce work that really elevates what we’re doing here.”

Vermilion’s creamy risotto uses brown Arborio rice, grown an hour away in southern Maryland. Pflaumer serves the dish with smoked candy onions, Parmesan cheese, and preserved black truffles. “[Brown Arborio rice] has an amazing aroma and is an ingredient that we’ll continue to highlight in different ways across the menu,” he says.

Dessert is an integral part of the new menu. The strudel, one of Pflaumer’s favorite sweets, draws inspiration from northwestern Italy and Austria. “There’s this great sort of flaky dough that we stretch out really thin and layer with breadcrumbs, sugar, and butter and then wrap fruit around,” he says of the crunchy pastry doused in boozy white port sabayon (a light custard). In the summer, the kitchen filled the strudel with blueberries, but as the season turns, expect to bite into tart Ginger Gold apples.

All things local

Vermilion’s appetizers include oysters, which are as hyperlocal as possible. | Credit: LeadingDC

“We take lists and ingredients that the farms are growing and build our menus from there,” Pflaumer says. “We try to find the most local, sustainable animals and fish to work with and really just highlight those ingredients the best that we can.”

The chickens Vermilion uses are pasture-raised at Locust Point Farms, a small, family-owned farm on the Maryland-Delaware state line. The sliced rib-eye used in the beef carpaccio comes from Roseda Farms in Monkton, a rural countryside community in northern Maryland.

The oysters, one of the restaurant’s more popular appetizers, are as hyperlocal as possible, including Rappahannock Olde Salts and Blue Points from the Delaware Bay. “At the end of the day, we’re going to try and keep everything as close to the mid-Atlantic region as possible,” he says.

For a savory treat, consider the cheese plate. Working with Vaughan Cheese, an artisanal cheese store on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Vermilion highlights American—primarily female—cheesemakers. One of the more exciting options includes a 14-month aged blue cheese wrapped in whiskey-soaked fig leaves from Tennessee. 

Main street charm, refreshed

Large windows line the refurbished dining area at Vermilion. | Credit: LeadingDC

Vermilion’s renovations include a refreshed exterior plus a new rustic-chic sign to welcome diners. While the restaurant’s signature gas lanterns, striking metal ceiling pendants, wood-paneled walls, and red brick remain, refinished floors, lush botanical wallpaper, and a fresh coat of paint revitalize the beloved space.

Once inside, diners can choose from several different vibes to suit their dining mood. The front lounge is decked with large windows with views of Old Town and its crowds. 

At the rear bar, the black leatherbound bar chairs and the vermilion-colored lounge booths exude a more easygoing vibe. A curated drinks list by beverage director Nick Farrell features seasonal cocktails such as a chamomile tea negroni, plus a selection of locally crafted beers from beer director Tim Liu.

For date nights and festive birthday dinners, Pflaumer recommends ascending the wooden staircase where an elaborate wine display welcomes diners to the upstairs dining room. “Even when you’re celebrating, it’s a lot more intimate,” he says of the warm, exposed brick space that overlooks the lively upper half of King Street below.

“[The reopening] has been a really great opportunity to…give it a slightly new look but one that’s still familiar to anyone that came in before,” Pflaumer says. “We just want to get our feet set and focus on taking care of our guests as we go into our twentieth year.”  

Christabel Lobo is a food and travel writer based between Washington, D.C. and south India. Find her on Instagram @whereschristabel and Twitter @wheresbel.